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Before learning Japanese, it is generally expected that you are able to read and write kana. Kana (仮名) is the common term for the syllibary systems used in Japan, which are used alongside Chinese characters, called kanji in Japanese. There are essentially five four types of kana; man’yōgana, hentaigana, katakana, and hiragana, however, only the latter two is still commonly in use today, which is why those are the ones you will learn.
I’m gonna keep this section as short as possible, because it ain’t all that interesting and because memory fails me… But during the Heian period of Japan (I think it was), which was 794-1185 CE, Chinese was the language of the scholared and the kana used for writing was the man’yōgana, which was relatively complex Chinese characters. The cursive form, which was used by women, of certain man’yōgana later evolved into the simplified kana to be known as hiragana (see evolution chart here), while the shorthand form, used by men, of certain man’yōgana evolved into katakana (se evolution chart here). While these new kana were not favored by scholars, who still considered Chinese to be “the proper spoken and written language of the scholared“, it lead to a revolution of new authors and poets among nobility, especially among women, who before were not able to read or write because they couldn’t/weren’t allow to become scholars.
The usage of hiragana and katakana is essentially very simple, though with some odd exceptions. As a rule of thumb however, just remember it like this: katakana is used when writing loanwords (words taken directly from other languages, e.g. アイスクリーム (aisukurīmu) is taken from the English word “ice cream“) or foreign names, while hiragana is used for verb and adjective inflections, for particles, and for any word not written in kanji. The division of hiragana being a “female script” and katakana being a “male script” can still be seen in children. Children who can’t, or won’t, write their names using kanji will obviously then write them using kana. Girls often favor hiragana, because it is curvier, prettier, and therefore more feminie, while boys will often go for katakana, since the straight lines look more direct, cool, and masculine (or at least “not feminine”).
And now we finally get to the part you’ve all probably been waiting for. I’m not gonna write so much here, since everything is explained in the in-flash tutorial. Use the left and right buttons at the bottom of the tutorial to read the previous or next page, respectively. However, a few things to note that are not explicitly explained in the flash:
•Small tsu: When reading and you encounter a tsu that looks smaller than a regular tsu (compare: つっ and ツッ) it means that the next consonant is doubled! E.g. みっか (mikka), まっつ (mattsu), エッジ (ejji), etc. The only exception is with double “n”s, which instead of a small tsu use the standalone “n” (ん), e.g. みんな (minna). Pronounciation-wise, you simple “hold” the consonant sound for ½~1 second.
•Bar: The bar looks like a hyphen (ー) and is unique to katakana, except sometimes when used in onomatopoeia (words to describe sounds, like “woosh”, “crack”, “whomp”, etc.) in manga. It is used to elongate the preceding vowel, so pronounciation-wise, hold the vowel sound twice as long as you regularly would. It is romanized by repeating the vowel, e.g. ビール (biiru), ショー (shoo), etc.
•Other small kana: Any small kana, that isn’t a tsu, is used to combine sounds and thus change the reading. In 95% of cases, these will be either ya, yu, or yo. In the flash, you’ll notice them on the left most table, and a single row on the right. Example: compare しょ (sho) to しよ (shiyo) or にや (niya) to にゃ (nya). It is important to take notice of this, because the meaning of a word can change dramatically, e.g. びよういん (biyouin = beauty parlor) vs びょういん (byouin = hospital). In the case of katakana, a, i, e, and o can also be small (see the green boxes at the top, when viewing katakana in the flash).
•Dakuten/Handakuten: In the flash, in the right most table, you’ll notice that the reading of a kana is slightly different. This is because of the two lines, called dakuten, or just ten-ten (dot-dot), added to the top right of the kana. The round circle seen in P-row is called handakuten or simply maru (circle). To compare, see はばぱ (ha-ba-pa, respectively).
If you have any comments or questions about the flash or the lesson, feel free to ask. If you wish to download the flash to your computer, right-click this link and select “Save destination as…” (the animation can be opened in just about any web-browser that supports flash, so IE or FF will work just fine). To open the file in a browser, right-click it, then press “Open with…” and select the browser of your choice. Also, if you notice anything I haven’t properly covered about kana, feel free to drop me a note.